WASHINGTON — For years, Jack Nicklaus Jr. has struggled to answer a question he’s been asked over and over again: What was it like to have the famed golfer and philanthropist Jack Nicklaus as his father?
Today, before a rapt crowd in the Capitol Rotunda that had gathered to honor the legendary athlete with a Congressional Gold Medal, the younger Nicklaus answered by telling the story of the 1986 Masters. Jack Nicklaus Jr. served as a caddy for his father during the tournament, and he watched his father’s determination and concentration as he won by one stroke, becoming at 46 the oldest winner of a Master’s.
It was a moment all about him: the attention, the focus, the applause. But in that moment, Nicklaus’ face lit up with a grin, he opened his arms and embraced his boy. “I knew I had his full focus, I felt like I mattered and I felt loved,” Nicklaus Jr. said. “That’s what it’s like to be his son.”
During an hour-long ceremony attended by members of Congress, Donald Trump, fellow golf legend Arnold Palmer and members of the Ohio State University Marching Band, speaker after speaker talked about the Ohio native’s legendary skill on the golf course, his sportsmanship, his philanthropic efforts and his devotion to his family.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called him “saintly.”
“He’s already a legend,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “but he hasn’t stopped.”
But when it was his turn at the podium, Nicklaus talked about what golf has given him. Golf, he said, has helped injured veterans returning from the war. Golf has united cultures and taught him honesty, integrity and good sportsmanship. And it generates some $4 billion a year in charitable giving. The PGA gave $140.5 million to charity last year, and has given an all-time amount of $2.14 billion.
“We just play golf,” he said, “but for so many others, golf was so much more.”
The award is the result of a bipartisan effort in the House and Senate: Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sponsored legislation in the Senate and Reps. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township and Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township led the House efforts. Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award a U.S. civilian can receive. Among those who have earned the honor: President George Washington, Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens and film producer and cartoonist Walt Disney.
Nicklaus, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, joined Arnold Palmer as being the only golfers in history to receive both honors. Accepting the award, he turned the tables to talk about Jack Jr. When his namesake was six, someone asked him what his father did for a living.
“Nothing,” the boy replied. “He just plays golf.”
But golf, Nicklaus, 75, said, today, was a means to a greater end.
“Yes, Jackie, I just play golf,” he said. “But my whole life’s work was to make you all proud of me. Hopefully, I have.”